Why You Shouldn't Mess With CMI

In 1998, Congress created a new legal basis for suing copyright infringers. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act made it illegal to remove "copyright management information" from copyrighted works and gives copyright owners the right to sue for damages people who do so. This is in addition to any rights they may already have to sue such people copyright infringement for copying their works.  

The main intent behind the new law was to prevent infringers from removing copyright notices and other ownership information from material placed in the online world. Severe penalties can be imposed on people who remove or alter copyright management information, Thus, as a rule you should never mess with such information.

What is copyright management information?

Copyright management information includes:

  • the title and other information identifying the work
  • a work's copyright notice
  • the author's name and any other identifying information about the author
  • the copyright owner's name and any other identifying information about the owner
  • any terms and conditions for use of the work, and
  • identifying numbers of symbols on the work referring to any of the above information or Internet links to such information.

What can't you do with copyright management information?

It is illegal to do any of the following if you know or have reasonable grounds to know that it will induce, facilitate or conceal a copyright infringement:

  • intentionally remove or alter any copyright information
  • distribute, import for distribution or publicly perform a work whose copyright management information has been removed or altered without permission from the copyright owner or legal authority
  • provide false copyright management information, or
  • distribute or import for distribution a work containing false copyright management information.

For example, it is illegal to remove the copyright notice from a program and then copy and place it online without the copyright owner's permission.  

Penalties for violations

Any person injured by a violation of the law may sue the violator for damages and seek to obtain a court injunction ordering the violator to stop distributing the work from which the copyright management information was removed, altered or falsified. Such a suit may be brought in addition to any suit for copyright infringement the person may have against the violator.

Example: John is the author and copyright owner of a program called AuctionWatch that helps people bid in online auctions. He sells the program through his own website. He discovers that the program has been copied and placed on another website without permission. John's name, the title of the program and the copyright notice were removed from the program before it was placed online. John can sue the website for copyright infringement for illegally copying and distributing his program. He can also sue for removing the copyright management information from his work--his name, title and copyright notice. He can obtain damages for both violations--copyright infringement and illegal removal of copyright management information. Ordinarily, both legal claims would be joined in a single lawsuit brought by John against the website.

If the suit is successful, the injured person may obtain from the court an award of its actual monetary damages or may instead ask for statutory damages. Such statutory damages range from a minimum of $2,500 to a maximum of $25,000 per violation. It's up to the court to decide how much to award within these limits. If the defendant is a repeat offender--has violated the law two or more times within three years--the court may increase the damage award up to three times. The court may also award the injured person attorney fees and court costs.

A person or company that willfully violates the law for commercial advantage or private financial gain may be criminally prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department. Penalties are steep: A first time offender can be fined up to $500,000 and imprisoned up to five years. But, nonprofit libraries, archives and educational institutions are not subject to criminal prosecution.

Exceptions for Fair Use and Public Domain Works

There are some situations where it is permissible to remove copyright management information without the copyright owner's permission.

First, the new law provides that such an action is permissible if permitted by law. One case where the law may permit removing copyright management information is when material is copied on the grounds of fair use. The fair use privilege permits people to copy portions of copyrighted works without obtaining permission from the copyright owner under certain circumstances In some cases it may not be possible or convenient to include copyright management information when a work is copied on the grounds of fair use--for example, when creating a parody of a copyrighted work. In this event, its removal would likely not be considered a legal violation.

Although the law doesn't explicitly say so, it doesn't apply to works that have entered the public domain. Such works may be freely copied and altered in any way. Since no one owns a public domain work, no harm is done by removing copyright management information.

Finally, law enforcement, intelligence and other government agencies are permitted to alter or remove copyright management information in order to carry out lawful investigative, protective, information security or intelligence activities.

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